Speaking With Impact

A good speech is a powerful implement. A great speech can turn the course of history and leave an impression on its audience that can last for decades. Some of the most momentous phrases of our time –“ I have a dream”; “Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few”; “Ich bin ein Berliner” – started life as a line on a script. But would be still remember them if they had been delivered badly?

If there is one thing that is guaranteed to strike a cold finger of fear into the hearts of many an executive, it is the thought of public speaking. Yet, in this media-dominated world, it is something that no-one with any ambition can easily avoid. It’s as simple as this: Good communicators have better careers.

If you are looking for an example of how vital public speaking skills are in the modern world, look no further than the US presidential election. Barack Obama is blessed with outstanding presentational skills. John McCain, on the other hand, is clearly not a natural public speaker and, in spite of the best speechwriters, is rarely inspiring or even interesting. For months, McCain lagged Obama in the polls until his new running mate, Sarah Palin, made her speech at the Republican Convention. In spite of her inexperience she was confident and clear and the audience instantly responded to her. The result? A significant Republican bounce in the polls.

Not everyone is a Barack Obama. But the good news is that effective public speaking is a skill that can be learned, and improves very quickly with practice.

Let’s start with the least important element – what you say. Communication, it is said, is 55% appearance and body language, 38% the tone of your voice and 7% the words.

Even if someone writes a speech for you (and I wouldn’t recommend it), it has to be in your tone of voice. The easiest way to fail is to take someone else’s speech, stand up and read it.

You will have a central message but remember that above all, people are looking for stories. Ideally, these will be true stories that involve you, but truisms and partial truth are just as valid. It is the stories that people remember, so punctuate your points with stories that resonate. A good speech will have macro and micro messages, and the stories lie in the micro messages. This is something that all good communicators do. Think of the television coverage of the Indonesian tsunami in 2004. Each bulletin would show a map of the region, the extent of the damage and the death count. But the scale of the tragedy - 200,000 deaths - was difficult for us to digest, so news reports would then zoom to a small village in Sri Lanka to meet a fisherman who had lost his family, his home and his boat. That way, we understand what it means.

Too many people spend too much time on the main content of the speech, and neglect the beginning and the end. I tend to write my opening lines last, once everything else is finished. More likely than not, the opening line will already be somewhere else in the speech. Think of it as a tabloid headline. If you boil down your argument to a few words, what would it be? The last lines of the speech should be a call to action, and you should finish as forcefully as you began.

It’s fine to write your speech out first but if you do, you must then translate it into the spoken word. Great written prose makes for a very poor speech. When you speak, sentences are much shorter – every comma becomes a full stop. Don’t be afraid of repetition, alliteration and soundbites; they may sound cheesy to you alone in your office but they work well in an auditorium.

Don’t underestimate the power of the pause. I coached Martin Johnson, the former England rugby captain, when he started out on the public speaking circuit. One of the first exercises I asked him to do was to punctuate a sentence from a speech: ‘What does it feel like to be led by you?’ Eventually, we came up with: ‘What does it feel like. To be led. By you?’ A pause at each full stop adds to the drama, but it also lets people really take in what you’re saying.

Nerves are perfectly natural and, in some ways, essential. The rugby player Jonny Wilkinson is among many elite sportsmen and women to admit that they suffer from nerves on big occasions, but they also recognise that nerves are important for a good performance because of the adrenaline that is created.

The secret is to manage your nerves and the situation as much as you can. Preparation is the key – the more preparation you do, the more confident you will be. Visit the venue beforehand and ask the audiovisual and sound staff to set up the room as it will be on the day. Then take a few moments to familiarise yourself with the environment. Visualise yourself delivering the speech, with everything going well.

There is no need to learn your speech word for word (although it does help), but I would certainly recommend that you learn the first two minutes. Comedians say that if their first couple of gags go down well, they know they’re onto a winner. The same goes for public speaking – a confident start will help you and the audience relax. When I first started public speaking, I used to tape myself delivering the speech and then play it in the car – it helped me to learn it and meant that when it came to the day, at least I knew exactly what I was going to say. If you think you need prompts, use index cards, but you should aim to minimise their use.

On the day, wait until there is complete silence in the room before you start. If there is a hubbub, I say ‘Good morning’ and then wait. If the room does not quieten down, I say it again. If you start while people are talking, you are telling them that what you’re saying is not worth listening to.

It is important to engage the whole audience, and not just the front few rows. When I’m speaking, I divide the audience into six areas (rear left, centre and right: front left, centre and right), pick one person in each section and reference them on a regular basis. Everyone, then, feels included.

Some people like the security of a lecturn. Personally, I like to move around. Try to keep an open posture, with your feet shoulder width apart. Move purposefully, or not at all – years of coaching public speaking have taught me that while nervous women tend to blush, nervous men will shove their hands in their pockets and jangle their keys, or perform a kind of square dance. Neither is going to instil confidence. Use physical movement to punctuate your speech (people tend to speak with their hands, which is why using too many cards can be restricting). Be authoritative, confident, passionate and enthusiastic, but never, ever be bland. Above all, be yourself – with the volume turned up.

Box: Audio visual aids• Visuals can improve the retention of your key messages by 50%• Avoid death by Powerpoint – no more than 15 slides for a 45 minutes presentation• Don’t clutter – no more than six lines of text per slide• If your audience needs more detail, use handouts• Talk to the audience, not the screen• Check and double check, and have a contingency if the gremlins strike!

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